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Origins of the Beatnik
January 14, 2005 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Do you consider yourself a latter-day "beatnik"? Even young fans of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg proudly christen themselves with the tag beatnik these days, apparently unaware that word was originally coined as a term of ridicule by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen. "Beat" was indeed used by Kerouac to denote both "beaten down" and "beatitude" -- a state of revelation. He first heard the word spoken by a Times Square hustler and writer named Herbert Huncke; then another writer, John Clellon Holmes, popularized the term "Beat" in a New York Times article headlined "This is the Beat Generation." But the original Beats did not approve of the term "beatnik" -- combining "beat" with the Russian "Sputnik," as if to suggest that the Beat writers were both "out there" and vaguely Communist -- as this hilarious dialogue [note: MP3 link] between a very young Ginsberg, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and an excruciatingly square talk-radio host makes plain.
posted by digaman (45 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I didn't know this. Great post.
posted by painquale at 11:20 AM on January 14, 2005


Thanks, painquale. I should also provide links to the official websites of Kerouac and Ginsberg. If you want to read more Beat Generation writing offline, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco is still going strong -- worth a pilgrimage!
posted by digaman at 11:27 AM on January 14, 2005


Interesting info on the derivation of "beatnik." I always assumed it was a combination of "beat" and "nudnik" (Yiddish for "a crashing bore.")
posted by enrevanche at 11:29 AM on January 14, 2005


Neat post. It's interesting how many derogatory terms come around to badges of pride, such as "Yankee," or "prime minister."

We see the reverse happening in some corners of the blogosphere with "reality-based community" used as a jab against the left - a jab that doesn't make very much sense to me, but there you go.

Also, anyone calling themselves a beatnik nowadays is probably very, very silly, although I agree with what someone once said long ago: that Kurt Cobain was an honorary beat, and probably born into the wrong era.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:41 AM on January 14, 2005


Ah, Herb Caen...the legend of three-dot columns...he is missed...I was fortunate to live in the Bay Area when they celebrated Herb Caen Day...what a character...
posted by davidmsc at 11:44 AM on January 14, 2005


The Times article was very interesting. I had only heard of the Beat Generation but never had even a tiny bit of understanding of them. The article even touched on the "Lost Generation" of the 20's - I appreciate my grandparents even more now. It's amazing how, in a way, youth culture hasn't changed all that much.
posted by hojoki at 11:53 AM on January 14, 2005


Thanks, digaman. Dylan deserves the title still. Sticherbeast, I believe "reality-based community" started out as a stab; the first use I saw was some Bush advisor quoted in the NYT Magazine.
posted by muckster at 11:54 AM on January 14, 2005


the yiddish suffix "nik," and its russian relation (as in bolshevik, menshevik, kritik) predates sputnik ("travelling person") by many years. even specific pejorative uses of the suffix *in english* predate sputnik (as in "no-goodnik" from the 1930s). it seems unlikely that beatnik comes directly from association with sputnik, but probably a more general slandering of someone as russian or jewish. i'll have to listen to the mp3 later to see if that enlightens. thanks for the post.
posted by nequalsone at 12:09 PM on January 14, 2005


Nequalsone, while Yiddishisms are common on the streets of Manhattan, they are much rarer out here in goyische San Francisco -- and Herb Caen wasn't Jewish. The Russians had launched Sputnik just five months before Caen coined the term "beatnik," and the satellite was much in the news, creating a full-fledged Cold War panic.

While I can't claim to have read Caen's mind, he was surely very aware of Sputnik when he coined the term.
posted by digaman at 12:16 PM on January 14, 2005


Interesting info on the derivation of "beatnik." I always assumed it was a combination of "beat" and "nudnik" (Yiddish for "a crashing bore.")...the yiddish suffix "nik," and its russian relation (as in bolshevik, menshevik, kritik) predates sputnik ("travelling person") by many years. even specific pejorative uses of the suffix *in english* predate sputnik (as in "no-goodnik" from the 1930s).

Me too. I've heard "nik" used as a suffix for all kinds of things, especially by Yiddish-familiar people: alrightnik, peacenik, neatnik. Maybe it's worth reviving, think of the possibilities: netnik, punknik, Iraqnik, nudenik, rapnik...
posted by jonmc at 12:22 PM on January 14, 2005


I am old guy and knew this stuff way back . Caen I found annoying: always boasting about the greatness of S.F.--I guess I lived there but was a jaded New Yorker and found it tiresome...Had invited great history prof to give a talk in a series I ran. He was taling about the head of state dept during days of WWII. Referred to the head man as "a gay handsome man." Paused: "I mean gay in the old-fashion sense of the word."
posted by Postroad at 12:35 PM on January 14, 2005


And then there was Maynard G. Krebs...
posted by wendell at 12:44 PM on January 14, 2005


Is the connection between hipsters and beats as tight as I thought? I admit, even if it is, the hipsters somehow seem more ephemeral.
posted by NickDouglas at 12:46 PM on January 14, 2005


well, "hipster" has always just been the generic parlance for the "with-it" people of an era, be they beats, hippies, disco bunnies or indie kids. Years down the line, some manifestations of "hip" age better than others. But as we enter into an age where all media from all times is available at a mouse click, era beacomes less important since almost everything is new to someone, thus negating the whole nature of hip.
posted by jonmc at 12:53 PM on January 14, 2005


Ah, ok. Thanks. I'm too young to even remember good MTV, so I didn't realize "hipster" spanned the ages.

I will continue to pretend "hip" means something, especially if I snag that internship at Gawker.
posted by NickDouglas at 12:55 PM on January 14, 2005


digaman: certainly everyone was very aware of sputnik, and its omnipresence made it reasonable to coin a new term knowing that it would resonate with the public as intended: russian/communist/jewish. however to suppose that caen invented a word using the suffix in exactly the way it had been used for many years completely unaware of its previous use seems unlikely. not impossible, but a little hard to believe.

he may have been goyische, but as a columnist commenting on popular culture, and traveling widely meeting celebrities, politicians and other media types, it seems pretty likely that he would have been aware of the use of the suffix "nik" before the sputnik, such as in popular songs like "i'm a no-goodnik."
posted by nequalsone at 12:57 PM on January 14, 2005


didn't caen also coin "hippie"?
posted by xian at 1:05 PM on January 14, 2005


Well, this is crappy research, but apparently Caen himself attributed it to Sputnik, saying "I coined the word 'beatnik' simply because Russia's Sputnik was aloft at the time and the word popped out."

Unfortunately I can't find the source for this quote, I just got it from an On This Day page. Speculation as to the role of subconscious knowledge of words like "no-goodnik" in the creation is reasonable, but ultimately unknowable. When you're writing, ideas rarely arrive in discrete packets. They more often coalesce from all the floating idea matter running around in your head.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 1:10 PM on January 14, 2005


actually "hippie," had a different meaning earlier on (closer to "hepcat" than "flower child") as seen in the Orlons' 1963 song "South Street" ("where do all the hippies meet? South Street! South Street!")
posted by jonmc at 1:11 PM on January 14, 2005


This makes an interesting followup of sorts to the recent AskMe thread on generation names.
posted by tommasz at 1:27 PM on January 14, 2005


well, "hipster" has always just been the generic parlance for the "with-it" people of an era

I think the word has had a change of heart in recent times. It used to mean anyone who was hip, but as the concept of being cooler-than-thou has experienced a lashback, the term "hipster" has taken on a negative connotation (at least where I live) and is very closely related to "poser."

Hipsters are a herd these days. Anyone who's actually, genuinely smart, interesting, stylish, independent, evolved, whatever you want to call "cool" isn't a card-carrying member of such a category. There's a distinct distaste for "beautiful people" in my generation (as I've experienced it). And hipster is more often applied to people who think they're cool or appear to think they're cool, than people who really do have something special going on.

This is all regional though, I suppose.
posted by scarabic at 1:27 PM on January 14, 2005


LFS: if the quote is correct, sputnik was the inspiration. but that certainly does not suggest that caen had no knowledge of other uses of "nik" -- even conscious knowledge. i guess all this "it was A not B" stuff is silly... but i'm still quite skeptical that he wasn't at least subconsciously aware.
posted by nequalsone at 1:37 PM on January 14, 2005


Hipsters are a herd these days. Anyone who's actually, genuinely smart, interesting, stylish, independent, evolved, whatever you want to call "cool" isn't a card-carrying member of such a category.

That's kind of true as well. When it's used negatively, it's to sort of refer to someone who thinks of himself as independent-minded or "alternative" but who instead is merely conforming to a different set of trends and guidelines from the "mainstream."

I don't think that a cultural "mainstream" exists anymore in this country, but that's a whole other discussion.
posted by jonmc at 1:43 PM on January 14, 2005



This recent thread
and the book to which it is referring (sold as _Nation of Rebels_ in the states) deals insightfully with the creation and perpetuation of the myth of 'hip'.
posted by milkman at 1:54 PM on January 14, 2005


I don't want to be "hip". I prefer "hep".

Hepcat.

Or, for those of you with a different taste in pets, Hepdog.

Hepster.

Hepboy.

Hepbot.

Hepocrat.

Hepocrite?
posted by wendell at 2:26 PM on January 14, 2005


I'm a beatnick [yeah, that's me on the right, playing the bongo].
posted by Doohickie at 2:28 PM on January 14, 2005


Nequalsone, I never made it an either/or proposition, suggesting that Caen would have been unaware of previous uses. That's a non-issue.
posted by digaman at 2:41 PM on January 14, 2005


actually "hippie," had a different meaning earlier on (closer to "hepcat" than "flower child")

I can't find a source for this, but I know I read somewhere that "hippie" was originally a softly mocking term the actual Beats used to refer to the poseurs of their day - the goateed, turtlenecked, bongo-banging pseudo-poets who mimicked the style but not the passion or intellectual depth of the Beats themselves. "Hippie" as a derogatory diminutive of hipster, that is.

Can anyone confirm this for me?

(Incidentally, it appears that both poseur and poser are acceptable spellings for the wannabes we're discussing here - though perhaps because I'm Canadian, I prefer the more authentic French spelling.)
posted by gompa at 2:47 PM on January 14, 2005


I just got off the phone with Carol Vernier, who was Herb Caen's assistant for 16 years. She says, "Herb definitely got 'beatnik,' from Sputnik, which had just gone up. Sure, he knew about 'nudnik' and all, but that was mostly a Jewish thing and was used much more rarely then than now. He was thinking of Sputnik."
posted by digaman at 3:07 PM on January 14, 2005


The Beatles were convinced to spell their name as they did by a Beat poet whose name escapes me right now.
posted by Eekacat at 3:44 PM on January 14, 2005


The accepted (PC) term used nowadays is now "Freak".

It's an compliment of sorts. It works for the longhairs, the goths, skateboarders, death metal heads, junkies, people with more than 2 facial piercings, bankers, politicians, drunk bums, soccer moms, that wierd old lady with that beard that won't let anyone come near her house, AND YOU!!

Freaks are your friends, Freaks are your co-workers...

I was just gettin' Freaky wit' yo mama last nite!

See, It's all inclusive, and isn't that what the beatniks and hippies have been wanting all along?

Something that brings all together, instead of being pigeon-holed into a mold by The Man...
posted by Balisong at 3:46 PM on January 14, 2005


(Whoops!! Forgot the crystal-klinking bliss ninnys, and hippies with guns...)
posted by Balisong at 3:52 PM on January 14, 2005


Well, according to Beat biographer and uber-hipster Barry Miles, who, believe it or not, I asked about this very point a few months ago, the Beatles were convinced to spell their name that way by Stuart Sutcliffe, the bass player for the proto-Beatles group the Quarrymen, featuring John Lennon. Sutcliffe was a fan of Kerouac's and Ginsberg's, as was the young George Harrison.
posted by digaman at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2005


the original mafia gangsters would never have called themselves 'gangsters'...neither would 'punks'. did hippies?

how many generations till the kids start calling themselves 'fags' in polite conversation?
posted by es_de_bah at 5:03 PM on January 14, 2005


speaking of which, who wants to join my hobo posse?
posted by es_de_bah at 5:04 PM on January 14, 2005


(Incidentally, it appears that both poseur and poser are acceptable spellings for the wannabes we're discussing here - though perhaps because I'm Canadian, I prefer the more authentic French spelling.)

i prefer the more authentic australian spelling, "wankeur" ;)
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:07 PM on January 14, 2005


Wankeurs and Freaks!!
Unite for ..um..

OOhh look, something shiny!!
posted by Balisong at 5:17 PM on January 14, 2005


This site has a few articles on the history of the beat generation, though it mostly revolves around Neal Cassady. [Note: Quasi-self link.]
posted by lkc at 5:55 PM on January 14, 2005


how many generations till the kids start calling themselves 'fags' in polite conversation?

I have definitely used that word in the "mah nigga" sense.
posted by digaman at 8:43 PM on January 14, 2005


The use of the word "fag" is extremely strange to me. At my fine liberal institution (NYU), due to some love for irony or some such nonsense, the term is used with a kind of subversive delight. Gay friends of mine will describe things as faggy, or their sexual peers as fags, and it's entirely accepted. I know if I were to use the word at home (south eastern PA), I would be seen as being bigoted - a phenomenon that I find rather funny. It reminds me of the exchange between Homer and Jon, the gay man in that Simpsons episode, which ends with Homer yelling at the self described "queer":

"That's our word for making fun of you! We need it!"
posted by NoamChomskyStoleMyFace at 12:35 AM on January 15, 2005


America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

-- Ginsberg
posted by digaman at 7:06 AM on January 15, 2005


MetaFilter: Wankeurs and Freaks!!
MetaFilter: OOhh look, something shiny!!
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:01 AM on January 15, 2005


That's ouanqueurs, of course.
posted by rustcellar at 11:41 AM on January 15, 2005


hip (adj.)
"informed," 1904, apparently originally in black slang, probably a variant of hep, with which it is identical in sense, though it is recorded four years earlier.
posted by memexikon at 8:15 PM on January 15, 2005


Anyone who's actually, genuinely smart, interesting, stylish, independent, evolved, whatever you want to call "cool" isn't a card-carrying member of such a category.

There is no bohemia in the sense of a popular culture outside and separate from the engines of consumer capitalism--all now define themselves by the acquisition of objects purchased to display their membership in the fantasy category of 'unique individual'. There is no cool, no hip--all is the top down marketing and bottom up purchase of commodities for mass consumption in the agon of what Veblen once called invidious display.
posted by y2karl at 8:49 PM on January 15, 2005


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